God’s not fair!

Sign at Occupy LA city hall encampment, October 2011

Sign at Occupy LA city hall encampment, October 2011

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the Feast!
And those that arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let them not hesitate; but let them come too.
And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.
For the Lord is gracious
and receives the last even as the first.
Christ gives rest to those that come at the eleventh hour,
as well as to those that toiled from the first.

This famous passage from the ancient Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom is a marvelous riff on Jesus’ parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16). It’s certainly good news to the latecomers, but rather disconcerting to those of us who have a strict idea of who’s in and who’s out. You never know what kind of people you’re going to run into at God’s place. You may have to break bread with some who haven’t earned their place at the table the way you have, who haven’t paid their dues the way you have. It’s not fair. The kingdom of God is not fair.

That’s the trouble with mercy and forgiveness and grace. They are so undiscriminating. How are we supposed to know where we stand, how can we measure up, how can we hold others accountable, if the standards are so loose and slippery?

Let’s face it. Jesus was a terrible bookkeeper. He didn’t maintain accurate accounts of how everyone was doing. He was too busy throwing a party for God’s friends. Y’all come. Everyone’s welcome!

The first disciples who listened to this story undoubtedly needed to hear its message. They were anxious about where they stood with Jesus and with God. Lord, who’s going to sit at your right hand and who’s going to sit on your left? What are we going to get for following you? Whom do you love the most? This anxiety about status and privilege continues in the Book of Acts, when some of the original Jewish believers resent the influx of Gentile converts. And we have our own versions of this calculating mentality today. Who’s in, who’s out? Who’s better, who’s worse? Who belongs, who doesn’t? Who’s saved, who’s not?

But with this parable, Jesus tells us:

  • Stop worrying about wages. The kingdom isn’t something you earn. It’s a gift. Be glad you are one of the recipients.
  • Don’t worry about how much you’ll get. You’ll get what you need. You really will.
  • Stop comparing yourselves to others. God loves everyone equally.
  • Don’t be envious or resentful of someone else’s good fortune, even when you think it’s undeserved. Be glad that God is so generous, even if it’s not always about you.

Once the whole idea of a bookkeeping religion has been exploded by this parable, we begin to realize that it’s not a story about wages at all. It’s a story about the vineyard. Everyone gets invited to the vineyard, and ending up there together is the whole point. The latest have not come too late, and the earliest have not come too early. In the end, everyone is there, no one is missing.

Now if you don’t want to be part of this vineyard collective, just take what you’ve earned and go. That’s what the master tells the complainers, the bookkeepers, and to me it’s the most chilling line in the story. You don’t want any part of the kingdom’s undiscriminating generosity? OK, fine. Go off and be by yourself, or with your little circle of the like-minded. But you may find it rather lonely. And you’ll miss one hell of a party.